NSA Blew $100 Million On Phone Records Over Five Years, Generated Exactly One Usable Lead

The telephone metadata program the NSA finally put out to pasture in 2019 was apparently well past its expiration date. Since the initial Snowden leak in 2013, critics have argued the program needed to die since it was obviously the sort of general warrant rummaging (only without the warrant!) the founding fathers headed off with the Fourth Amendment.

The program wasn’t remade/remodeled until the passage of the USA Freedom Act in 2015. That took the phone records away from the NSA and left them at their place of origin — the databases maintained by telcos and other service providers. The government was also required to put forward some sort of articulable suspicion before asking for phone records from telcos.

The NSA was uniquely unprepared to handle these sorts of transactions, having been built from the ground up to collect everything and sort through it later. Now that its searches were more confined, it frequently found itself obtaining more records than it could legally justify having. The cost of compliance managed to outweigh the benefits of the program and the NSA just kind of stopped approaching the FISA court with requests for communications metadata.

Still, proponents argued the program had value — possibly unrealized — and that it should not be written out of existence by the periodic surveillance powers renewal process. I have no idea what they planned to use as evidence for these claims. A new report by Charlie Savage for the New York Times makes it clear even the most obligatory cost-benefit analysis should lead Congressional oversight to question why it allowed the modified Section 215 collection to limp along for another five years.

A National Security Agency system that analyzed logs of Americans’ domestic phone calls and text messages cost $ 100 million from 2015 to 2019, but yielded only a single significant investigation, according to a newly declassified study.

$ 100 million for a single investigation lead. How’s that for ROI? It actually produced two leads, but the other lead was a dead end that terminated an investigation before it could get past its initial stages.

Not only was the program useless, it was also redundant.

It also disclosed that in the four years the Freedom Act system was operational, the National Security Agency produced 15 intelligence reports derived from it. The other 13, however, contained information the F.B.I. had already collected through other means, like ordinary subpoenas to telephone companies.

Killing the program just makes sense. And Congress can do it with during the renewal process for the USA Freedom Act, which expires in March of this year. With this information in the public domain, no one can seriously argue the program should continue to consume tax dollars and provide almost zero usable intel for another five years. Given the fact these agencies can still use subpoenas to target phone records, it would seem far more beneficial for everyone if the NSA and FBI did a bit more targeted snooping, rather than use the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to sweep up Americans’ phone records.

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